Thursday, March 16, 2017


I've always believed words could do wonderful things. Novelist Virginia Woolf, above, proved it by enlivening the last years of dying French painter Jacques Raverat with a constant stream of letters. 

A portrait of Jacques Raverat, who died at age 40 of multiple sclerosis in 1925. He said Woolf's letters gave him a reason to want to keep living.

Words, the right words, precise, concise and razor-sharp. For much of my life, I've thought that if I chose exactly the right words, magic would ensue. Evildoers would mend their ways; the afflicted would find solace; politicians would finally shape up and do what I knew was right.

It seldom worked out that way, even when I was a newspaper reporter and in a position to try some of the above. But it wasn't until quite late in life that I realized not everybody's mind -- given time to roam -- immediately started honing remonstrative letters to the editor.

I am reflecting on the power and use of words right now for a couple of reasons. One is that I have overcome years of ingrained journalist's neutrality and written an opinion piece for The Vancouver Sun about the affordability and housing crisis in our city. I have no illusions that politicians will suddenly see the light, but since words are my only weapons, I decided to deploy them. Carefully honed and in the right order, of course.

I have also just finished Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, which strikes me as an example of words being used in the kindest way imaginable. Woolf was a sharp and formidable figure, not particularly known for kindliness, but between 1922 and 1925, she wrote regularly to dying French painter Jacques Raverat and his wife Gwen, sending a stream of gossip, wit, humour and philosophy across the English Channel to liven his final years. She even did the unthinkable -- for her -- and gave him early proofs of her novel Mrs. Dalloway because she knew he'd be dead when it was published.

"Your letters," he wrote a few months before his death of multiple sclerosis at age 40 in March of 1925, "have given me something, which very few people have been able to give me, in these last years." And later, "Almost it's enough to make me want to live a little longer, to continue to receive such letters and such books. I don't know how to thank you."

Words to comfort the afflicted, and words to try to effect change. At least one effort was successful.

The letters between Woolf and the Raverats were put together by William Pryor,  the grandson of Gwen and Jacques Raverat and the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.
Excerpt from June 8, 1924 letter from Woolf to Jacques Raverat:

I have had two bloody painful encounters with Middleton Murry [literary critic]; we stuck together at parties like two copulating dogs; but after the first ecstasy, it was boring, disillusioning, flat. The long and short of him is that he's a coward. First he fawns up to me, then when I attack him he plants his dart and runs away.

1 comment:

  1. These letters sound quite fascinating. Has your opinion piece been published?